R.I. Foundation willing to pay for next big idea

The next idea that’s so brilliant it saves lives, solves a persistent social problem or breathes life into a stagnant economy could come from anywhere. More

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R.I. Foundation willing to pay for next big idea

Posted 10/31/11

The next idea that’s so brilliant it saves lives, solves a persistent social problem or breathes life into a stagnant economy could come from anywhere.

So The Rhode Island Foundation has cast the widest possible net in its search for the state’s first Innovation Fellows, two people whose ideas may have the potential to change life in the state for the better.

“We are looking for impact and are trying to attract the people who know what to do with a blank piece of paper,” foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg said last week. “We hope to get some ‘aha’ moments out of this, some times when people are saying ‘I wish I had thought of that.’ ”

Spurred by the dreams and donations of Providence philanthropists Letitia and John Carter, the recently launched Innovation Fellowships program will choose two people to provide $300,000 each in seed money over three years.

The grants will be used to “develop, test and implement” the recipients’ ideas. If all goes as planned, the program will become permanent and the foundation will choose two new fellows each year.

The only requirements are that the fellows be individuals at least 18 years old and live in Rhode Island for the duration of the fellowship. Elected officials are ineligible.

Aside from overall genius, the ideas that will be chosen for the program will be the ones that can be scaled-up to help the most people possible or deal with long-term, previously intractable problems in a new way.

Display of exceptional leadership, bold risk-taking and the potential to reach as much of the state as possible will also be rewarded in the selection process.

“There is freedom for that entrepreneurial, risk-taking spirit,” Steinberg said.

Befitting the inclusive nature of the program, for-profit ideas are not excluded from the fellowships, although the ultimate goal of the idea must be community benefit, not individual gain.

“We need to see some case made for social or community impact – the greatest good for the greatest number – not just that you have a neat widget,” Steinberg said. “This was born out of great optimism that, although we have great challenges, we also have great opportunities. The future will be better.”

The idea for the fellowships started with former industrialist John Carter and wife Letitia, who approached the foundation with an interest in encouraging and funding a stream of solutions to the state’s problems from Rhode Islanders.

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